Many stories, one identity

My obsession as of late has been the website Humans of New York (HONY). The blog features photographs of random people about New York City accompanied by a quote characterizing the individual (or individuals). Brandon Stanton, the creator of the project, says he began HONY as a photographic census of the city, but it has grown into “so much more than that.”

Reading about HONY’s creation made me think about the power and importance of sharing stories. We are drawn to stories – both those of others’ and our own. I think this is more than just a perverse curiosity; rather, it speaks as to the essence of our very being.

Our stories define who we are. They provide us with a continuity of selfhood. We begin our journeys through the world as veritable tabulae rasae and each of our experiences shapes our habits, our worldview and ultimately our identity. Naturally, we crave to hear others’ stories and tell them our own so as to share in the personal growth such an interaction invariably carries with it.

The problem that sometimes arises, however, is that we grow too comfortable with ourselves and the stories we are familiar with. Retracting like that can be comforting; the ever-continuing cycle of change and growth is frightening and often overwhelming. Efforts to hide from or avoid it inevitably lead to pain and stagnation. We must embrace our changing identities through interaction with others if we as a global society ever hope to advance.

Take a moment to reflect on your complexity as an individual, the vastness of your identity. (I almost wrote “Imagine that…” but quickly realized everyone is an enigma comprised of many different factors, behind each one of which lies a story explaining it.) Now imagine someone, whether they be across the world or simply across the street, inaccurately condensing you to one or two of those qualities you reflected on. Not only would that be factually incorrect, but insulting and hurtful as well.

You don’t have to stretch the imagination far to realize that all across the globe, people are projecting their single-story understanding onto incredibly complicated scenarios, like the wealth inequality in Latin America (as if it were one place) and the Israel-Palestine situation.

Chimamanda Adichie warns against the danger of retracting into a single story in a powerful TED Talk. Seeing things through the vision of a single story prevents us from truly understanding our human brothers and progressing toward peace, both personal and societal.

The phrase “We tell stories” was on a list of journalist speaker clichés given to the Chronicle staff by one of our faculty advisers. Perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to the field of journalism. But I would argue that phrase to employ the inclusive we, speaking about humanity as a whole.

Maybe clichés aren’t always bad.

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